Two things come out very clearly from the Ruchika Girhotra case – first, we need to distinguish between a “Molestation” and an Attempt to Rape, and second, we need to treat offences against minors differently.
We all know the facts of what happened to Ruchika Girhotra – in 1990, 14 year-old Ruchika was molested by Shambhu Pratap Singh Rathore, a police offer who subsequently rose to become the Director General of Police in Haryana (i.e. the highest-ranking police officer in the state of Haryana). Rathore subsequently started harassing Ruchika’s family because he did not want them to go public with the crime.
Ruchika was traumatized for years by the “molestation” and she subsequently committed suicide. Nineteen years after the offence, in Dec. 2009, Rathore was finally sentenced – to 6 months in prison and fined a paltry Rs. 1000. After the public uproar that ensued at this mild sentence, the case has now been transferred to the CBI.
There are at least two issues here:
Issue 1 : Indian Laws on Molestation and Attempts to Rape:
Current Indian laws look at “molestation” as a minor offence. Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) states:
Section 509. Word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman
Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, of that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
When you consider Rathore’s 6 month sentence, it is ironic to note that if poor Ruchika had failed in her suicide attempt, she may have received a harsher punishment than Rathore’s. Sec. 309 of the IPC states :
Section 309. Attempt to commit suicide
Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for term which may extend to one year [ or with fine, or with both].
So what does Sec. 509 mean by “privacy of a woman”? The media and the law use different words while talking about sexual harassment, and none of them are clear. We need to explicitly define “molestation”, “eve-teasing”, “misbehavior” and every other euphemism we use. Right now, everything short of outright rape goes by “eve-teasing” , “molestation” or “intruding upon privacy”. Harassment of women in India takes different forms. There is the groping that happens in public places – on buses, in crowds and so on, and there is the harassment that happens behind closed doors, where it can turn into an attempt to rape. Which brings us to the other irony in Indian law – we have penalties for Attempt to Suicide and Attempt to Murder., but as the Supreme Court has ruled in a different case, the IPC does not recognize “Attempt to rape” as a crime.
An unsuccessful rapist can only be charged under Section 354, Assault or criminal force to women with intent to outrage her modesty, which carries a maximum sentence of 2 years – not a very harsh punishment for an almost-rapist. Let’s be clear, the major issue in rape is not only the physical trauma that the victim suffers, but also the psychological trauma – which she would be suffer even in an attempt to rape. The social stigma that she would suffer in Indian society wold not be very different either. So while the victim suffers nearly the same consequences, how can a perpetrator who had every intention to rape get a mere slap of the wrist just because he was not successful in carrying out the rape?
Issue 2: Offences against minors should carry a greater penalty than offences against adults.
In many cases, minor children may not even understand what has happened to them, or be able to explain the nature of the offence clearly. Even when they do understand and can articulate clearly, the balance of power between a adult and a child is so skewed that it is very easy for an adult to cow down a child with threats.
From the perpetrator’s viewpoint, children are an easy target of sexual harassment – whether molestation, rape or incest, precisely because the probability of detection is so low.
One way to deter this is to make the punishment for a crime against a minor so stringent that even with a low probability of detection, the adult perpetrator will still think twice before committing the crime. So I believe that the same crime, when committed against a minor child, should carry a punishment which is many times harsher that when committed against an adult.
The message that the judgement in Ruchika’s case has sent out is that you can get away with a mere slap on the wrist if you commit a crime against a minor. The Indian government needs to take action to change this perception. I think it is high time our legislators made the necessary changes in the Indian Penal Code. That is possibly the best justice that Ruchika Girhotra and all the other silently suffering Ruchikas around the country can get.